The EPA Says It Is Suspending Enforcement of Environmental Regulations Because of Coronavirus

The Environmental Protection Agency announced it would suspend enforcement of environmental regulations because of the coronavirus pandemic. The EPA made the decision following “an influx of requests from businesses for a relaxation of regulations as they face layoffs, personnel restrictions and other problems related to the coronavirus outbreak,” according to The New York Times, which broke the story.

The agency’s order states that it will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements, effectively allowing businesses to regulate themselves amidst the crisis. The changes are retroactive to March 13 and are “only so that facilities can concentrate on ensuring that their pollution-control equipment remains safe and operational.”

“In general, the E.P.A. does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the E.P.A. agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the E.P.A. upon request,” the order states, urging companies to “act responsibly” if they cannot currently comply with rules that regulate the amount of pollution they emit into the air and put into the water.

The move earned heavy criticism from Cynthia Giles, who headed EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration.

“This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future. It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was,” Giles wrote in a statement.

“Incredibly, the EPA statement does not even reserve EPA’s right to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health,” Giles added, saying the order allows companies to pollute without oversight.

“Instead, EPA says it will defer to states, and ‘work with the facility’ to minimize or prevent the threat. EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is. I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo.”

Andrea Woods, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, pushed back against the criticism.

“It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” said Andrea Woods, an E.P.A. spokeswoman. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”